COLUMBIA — With the golden days of $1.93-a-gallon gasoline a distant memory, thefts at the pump and from the gas tanks of cars are becoming increasingly common in Columbia.
Columbia police Sgt. Lloyd Simons said he’s seen an increase in gas thefts recently as prices have gone up. That includes both “drive-offs” at the pump and from the gas tanks of cars.
Gas stations have responded with counter-measures, like asking customers to pay before they pump and installing surveillance cameras.
A Petro Mart employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal at her job, said, “We rely on cameras to get an idea of what the vehicle looks like and what the license plate number is. We try and spot suspicious-looking people early, too.”
Simons described the kind of behavior that would draw suspicion to a customer.
“Typically, they’re the ones that park at the pump furthest away from the clerks, and kind of at an angle,” he said.
The get-away at the local gas station can ultimately land a person in jail. Simons said gas stations coordinate their efforts with the Police Department to help catch fuel scofflaws.
“The gas station will call dispatch and give them a description of the car, the time the drive-off occurred, the direction the vehicle went, and any other pertinent information that could benefit officers in identifying the suspect,” he said.
Then, instead of a report being written, police issue a number to be kept on file at the gas station, serving as a record that the police were called. It’s the method by which gas stations can identify trends and keep track of their losses.
The records can help show whether incidents are occurring frequently on a specific day of the week, or when a certain employee is working. “Then, if an officer is available to assist in the area, he or she will,” Simons said. “If we have enough to go on or find that the suspect is a repeat offender, then a full-fledged investigation will be opened up.”
One Break Time employee, who asked not to be named because of Break Time’s parent company’s policy of not speaking with the media, said some harmless driver habits raise anxiety. “I hate it when cars’ll drive up to parking spaces up front after pumping gas, because I always think they’re going to take off instead,” he said.
The same clerk also said, “I’ve caught a couple people before, even jumped the counter to go after someone, and my friend threw a rock at someone’s back windshield.”
Not just gas stations are getting hit. People who live at some Columbia apartment complexes have asked for an increased police presence in their lots, mainly at night, because of a rise in gas thefts from private vehicles.
Matt Vivian, an MU student, recounted walking out onto a street in front of Campus View apartments and seeing a man in the process of siphoning gas from his car.
“About midnight, I walked out to my car and saw this guy in a black hat glance at me and then bolt in the other direction,” Vivian said. “I took off chasing him because I thought he was vandalizing my car.”
Soon, Vivian saw what the man was up to.
“I glanced down as I ran past my car and saw two red jugs sitting on the ground next to my car’s gas tank cover, which had been pried open, and then I knew,” he said.
Vivian said he swore at the man, poured the gas back into his car, then moved it.
Mark Tilley, a resident at an apartment complex south of town that he did not want to name, was less fortunate. He discovered the theft from his tank when he got into his car to go to class one morning two weeks ago.
“I go out there to my car, which is in the same place I park it every night, and when I turn it on, the low-gas light came on,” he said. “I filled up two days ago and commute for about a total of 12 minutes a day.”
Tilly said he didn’t see any evidence near the gas cap or underneath the car. “I asked around, and apparently I was the only one that got hit that night, lucky me.”